ArthurFest opens its doors early in the afternoon on Sunday. Future Pigeon is up first, but their funky dub fails to impress, sounding more like stoned ska than anything else. Lacking hooks, harmony, or any ingratiating quality other than groove, I take advantage of the still-short line at the theater and see The Time Flys. Aptly named, their retro-rock echoed Cheap Trick as much as the Ramones. Entirely ‘70s, down to the tight pants and denim vests, they were good fun, but not exactly what I was expecting to see at this particular festival.
The Young Jazz Giants were first on the Pine Stage and their edgy improvisations proved more in line with my expectations. Holding it down with the customary horns, drums, and upright bassist, they kept it freaky with heavily processed keys and electric funk bass.
Dead Meadow took the main stage offering another disappointing set. Failing to engage anyone—even themselves—in their performance, the band’s tuneless dreck blended the most banal aspects of indie rock and stoner metal. I soon departed to the theater for Fatso Jetson, of whom no further description need be provided—the name itself says all there is to be said. Jack Rose then took to the pines, seemingly intent on lulling us to sleep. I left him to that task and proceeded back to the lawn where the acclaimed Olivia Tremor Control was about to begin.
Olivia Tremor Control
My hope was that Olivia Tremor Control‘s set would be the day’s first onset of greatness, and that it would rev up the afternoon. Unfortunately, that was not the way it went down. Instead they sounded like a graduate music thesis gone awry. With members rotating through an unwieldy and ultimately unnecessary number of instruments, they eked out a space between The Kinks and an average high school band.
I was as unimpressed with them as I was with Marissa Nadler out in the pines. I began to question when and where this thing would really start happening—I decided I had better investigate the beer gardens.
Comets on Fire
Getting on late into the afternoon, Comets on Fire arrived to reclaim the day. Whereas Wolfmother channeled an enigmatic energy the day before, Comets on Fire embodied that intensity. They were uncontrolled and in the red from the onset with an immensity of volume and volatility enough to make Blue Cheer sound brittle and frail.
Exhausted by their explosiveness, I retreated to the trees to take in Vetiver‘s soft-strumming balladry. Instead I arrived to find Devendra Banhart rocking out with Andy Cabic and his band. All awash in the soon-setting sun, the band were much more raucously country than the fragile folk I’d expected. Soon enough, though, they settled into a more mellifluous mode.
For all the earthiness I left behind in the pines, The Juan Maclean was out on the lawn unleashing malevolently unfeeling robot rock. As impersonal as they were irresistible, the jams laid down by former Six Finger Satellite John Maclean were forced, but still funky. While he didn’t give off that same sense of unencumbered fun so palpable in DFA label-mates like LCD Soundsystem, the urge to dance invoked by his post-krautrock-techno-punk could not be ignored.
Engaging as it was, I couldn’t shake a sense of loss. Having missed a rare performance by the legendary Earth back at the theater, but it was now bottled up with an impenetrable line. Shortly thereafter it was time to beat it back over to the Pine Stage where Devendra Banhart was about to do a solo set as an unannounced guest. Having curated the Golden Apples of The Sun compilation for Arthur in 2004 and taking the stage right after his former backing band and friends in Vetiver, it was easy to assume that Banhart would turn up again as the special surprise. Still, one can never overestimate just how special he is.
I first saw Banhart as a solo artist in 2003 in one of the few and only performances to which I would ascribe the word “enchanting”. For all the folded-leg, folk finger-picking of that initial experience, Banhart emerged into ArthurFest as a full-fledged Mick Jagger-swaggering rock star. His presence dominated the stage and delighted the audience. Still, that enigmatic spark shone through. Asking the audience if anyone there wrote songs, he soon had a random young man on stage strapping on a guitar to show us what he could do. That kind of inclusiveness is almost unheard of at rock shows indie or otherwise. Still, Banhart made it happen with easy grace and good feelings.
Spoon was soon taking the main stage and their sophisticated rock and skronk set the score for the sun setting over Hollywood Hills. While they sounded sweet enough, what I heard was carried to me on the breeze as I waited in the long line at the theater to see Sunn 0))). Appearing about as infrequently as Merzbow, their performance was not to be missed even if it meant missing Spoon and Cat Power altogether.
Growing was grinding out the end of their set as I entered. Described as a band that starts out ambient but ends up monstrous, I had clearly arrived at their calamitous climax. With one guitar, one bass, and more processors and amps than either could ever fully make use of, they droned on in a suitable summoning of the power ambient destruction about to ensue.
Following their set the audience was informed it would be one full hour before Sunn 0))) could begin. In that time a massive wall of amps and enclosures was erected across the stage. Soon thereafter a coffin arrived and a man emerged in pentagram sweatshirt and metal mask to unleash a cloud of chemical smoke. In doing so, a wave of tiny lighter flashes was initiated as a pungent stench permeated the air. With emergency exits getting increasingly difficult to discern, security put an end to the smoke machine.
Sunn 0))) finally took the stage with all three members draped in dark robes. Tearing into their guitars, my body shook with reverberations filling up every space around and within me. Multiple hundreds of analog wattage unleashed a wall of dissonant sound that disturbed seats, spines, and sentience. Their none-slower abomination of the most dehabilitatingly stoned doom metal morphed its way into an entirely cathartic experience.
Into this dolorously dour sludgery a dark figure in corpse-paint emerged with the appropriate black metal scream and high histrionics. Eventually the coffin opened, a guitar was set inside it, and the set came to its squealing conclusion. As the robed figures exited, one remained caught up in the immensity of the endeavor. Suddenly he set about toppling speaker stacks onto the audience. As enclosures thudded upon the theater floor, the violent reality of this outburst became undeniably visceral. Gasps of horror abounded about the room with the realization that someone may have just been killed. This was not the case though and the house lights came on to illuminate only piles of recklessly abused equipment and no human carnage. Breathlessly I leave the theater in awe of the most brutal live set I’d ever endured.
At this point all that was left to the ArthurFest was Yoko Ono. Albeit historical in the sense that she once did something, her set is otherwise inconsequential. Her backing band brought standard studio session competency but nothing more. She herself let the band jam on in their dull groove while only occasionally piercing the still night with a shrill cackle. A sea of mini flashlights distributed prior to Ono’s set lit the crowd in blinking brilliance but ultimately proved as distracting as the conversations around me—mostly they concerned royalty checks from the Beatles’ back catalogue.
But it was a fitting conclusion. A woman who once meant something was upstaged by a bunch of costumed thugs that hardly anybody saw. There between those extremes of irrelevancy and obscurity was an array of vital artists still pushing onward wherever their aesthetic took them.
T Model Ford
Whereas Wolfmother and Comets on Fire each indulged in their own amalgamations of ‘60s revolution and ‘80s attitude, Merzbow and Sunn 0))) sought distinctly excessive displays of sheer sound. The Juan Maclean‘s overtly and intentionally stiffness stood in direct contrast to the uncontrollably joyful T Model Ford, but both artists got bodies moving to the beat. While The Black Keys summoned the dearly departed, Devendra Banhart celebrated the living with an all-encompassing love-in at the pines.
Amid very few frustrations and some flawed faltering, these intriguing and intoxicating experiences made an impossibly perfect event every bit as inspirational as advertised. It was now time to head home, and eat some more ice cream.